Crowdsourcing reveals life-saving potential in global health research
Technology is allowing partners who previously worked independently to collaborate to combat neglected diseases
A growing trend in collaborative health research is creating potentially life-saving global partnerships between pharmaceutical companies, academic researchers, disease advocates and even the general public, who are drawn into the world of science through crowdsourcing.
Dwindling money for research and development, and waning donor patience have forced global health players to change how they innovate new products and processes.
"For years, pharmaceutical companies and research institutes … have contributed to fighting neglected tropical diseases, but often independently or through smaller partnerships," said Don Joseph, chief executive of the California-based NGO BIO Ventures for Global Health, which encourages biotechnology firms to develop drugs, vaccines and diagnostics for neglected diseases.
Finding an elusive disease solution independently could mean individual glory, but also long-term research and development commitments and higher financial risk. "Generally, drug development is expensive, takes a long time and most things don't work," Joseph said. Risks have grown exponentially, with clinical trial costs rising by an estimated 70% between 2008 and 2011. Partnerships help spread the burden.
"The challenge is to create projects that are simple and allow a streamlined process for organisations to participate," Joseph told IRIN. "[Open innovation partnerships could] significantly reduce trial and error, and lead neglected disease researchers to that 'Eureka moment' more quickly and effectively."
Partners – who might once have been competitors – are increasingly sharing expertise, intellectual property and financing. Henry Chesbrough, executive director of the programme in open innovation at the University of California, coined the term "open innovation" in 2003 to describe this shift. "The prevailing logic was … if you want something done, do it yourself," Chesbrough said in 2011. "This new logic of open innovation turns that completely on its head."
Researchers are realising that in the race to discover the next big cure, strength lies in numbers. "Competitive advantage now comes from having more people working with you than with anyone else," Chesbrough said.
"We have been encouraged by the willingness of industry to consider and participate creatively in open innovation initiatives for neglected diseases and other devastating illnesses," said Joseph.
The Re:Search project, a partnership launched in 2011 between BIO Ventures and the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo), which comprises 185 UN member states, calls for a more global interpretation of intellectual property to spur health innovation and development, and the collaboration of biotechnology firms, pharmaceutical companies and academia.
For example, the project will make it easier for a researcher in Tanzania to connect with pharmaceutical giants for additional biomedical information, resources and detailed product knowhow, Joseph said. Such information has often been carefully guarded because of intellectual property rights, but transparency between partners will be the key.
To meet health challenges more quickly and with tight budgets, an increasing number of organisations are turning to crowdsourcing competitions to outsource innovation to the general public.
In 2009, the international scientific journal Nature teamed withInnoCentive to use online crowdsourcing to invite solutions and proposals to medical and scientific problems. InnoCentive began hostingglobal health challenges in 2006, linking organisations looking for solutions with problem-solvers who can earn tens of thousands of dollars. The organisations give prizes for winning solutions in return for the intellectual property rights.
In 2008, a challenge by the Global Alliance for TB drug Development (TB Alliance) to simplify the manufacturing processes of an advanced-stage TB drug earned the two winning problem-solvers $20,000 (£12,750) each for their ideas.
The electronics company Nokia recently partnered with the California-based educational NGO X Prize Foundation, to offer $2.25m to encourage the innovative use of digital tools, particularly mobile health applications.
"This competition will enable us to realise the full potential of mobile-sensing devices, leading to advances in … [the] technology, which can play a major role in transforming the lives of billions of people around the world," said Nokia's executive vice-president and chief technology officer,Henry Tirri. Sensing technologies detect disease and measure health indicators such as temperature and blood pressure.
In the 1990s, decades before crowdsourcing was applied to humanitarian response, product-development partnerships (PDPs) tried to accelerate the development of technologies to fight TB, Aids, malaria and neglected diseases. The TB Alliance, a PDP launched in 2000, says there are more than 140 partnerships projects either being developed or in the process of investigating drugs, diagnostics and vaccines for neglected diseases.
Among these, the Gavi Alliance, formerly known as the global alliance for vaccines and immunisation, aims to get more vaccines to poorer countries, and the EU's innovative medicines initiative is developing new drugs and tests for diseases, including TB.
Open innovation partnerships can take a variety of forms, but in product development, partners with differing expertise, financing and motives can mean clashing agendas. Historically, product development has been driven by market incentives, which include maintaining intellectual property rights, but new partnerships are proceeding without these guarantees.
"We have had nothing but positive, eager interactions between members [of the Wipo project]," said Joseph. "The perceived barrier of intellectual property as a brake on collaboration in drug and vaccine development is, in our view, exaggerated."
Open innovation is still a new commercial approach to partnerships for global health, Joseph said. "Right now, open innovation seems to be working well to speed the development of new products, but we're in the very early stages of these projects. Time will tell."